bloodyvisigoths@charter.net

 

"ALLIES"

by Ernie Whiting

Part 5

Chapter Fourteen

Colonel Warren checked his watch again as he waited impatiently for the new distributor rotors that were on the way, and as he did he reminded himself once more to deal most severely with that deserter when all of this was over. That bastard had sabotaged the radios, too; they had to scavenge parts from the others to get just one on line so they could call for help.

Because the Plagues had taken so many lives worldwide, it was hard to keep a strong work force. The American population alone was only about a third of what it used to be, and so was the military, so many highly trained technical people were needed to keep the wheels of the corporate government turning and to turn society into a proper and God-fearing Christian state. But now few of these people were available. They were needed primarily in the military and defense-related industries, and even though there were some true believers in the FLM who would do anything they could--even for free, if they thought it necessary--their numbers were far too small. For some reason, an increasing number of people nowadays seemed to be infected with some nonsense they called "personal conscience," or "personal responsibility," or some other crap like that. Some soldiers, no doubt, even used this dubious excuse as a reason for desertion--the gutless bastard who had sabotaged this caravan was a perfect example, Warren reminded himself. And there was a lot of desertion, too--especially among the draftees--despite the threats of on-the-spot execution. The bastards. They just didn’t want to serve their Lord and Nation, that’s all, Warren firmly believed.

In the early days of the Plagues, the American people had gone flooding to the Foundation, because when they had tried to question their elected representatives about these tens of thousands of deaths, they had received no answers. Fear had mounted and had driven people to their local churches like never before, because in the churches there were answers. Not necessarily accurate or even truthful answers, but they were answers, and any answer was better than the stonewalling that they got from their representatives. And television and radio evangelists of the FLM had claimed over the airwaves that the End Times were upon them; that the world was about to be destroyed by fire, as predicted in the Bible...and never mind that once again they had to re-interpret--or alter--the word of their god. The Bible had never foretold of the fires of nuclear Armageddon; now it was claimed that it had accurately prophesied the fires of raging fevers.

They had begged for our guidance! Warren told himself. They elected us to office so that they could be certain that what was being done in their name by their Government was right. But lately, for some reason, they had begun to disagree with the Foundation; they had begun to think for themselves. They were almost becoming what some in the FLM called "devil-worshiping Communist atheists." Dear God, we’re losing ground, Warren told himself. It was a good thing that the Foundation was in full control of all the media now, because if they hadn’t been in control...if the FLM had been unable to synchronize the media...if the American people knew how weak the FLM really was...dear God, they could overthrow the Foundation so quickly that...that... Well, it’s best not to think about that, Warren concluded. It was a good thing that they had been able to seize all those firearms through the national registry, too, because... If even a fourth of the remaining population owned firearms, we’d be in deep sh... serious trouble, he corrected himself.

Warren didn’t like thinking about this, so to cheer himself up he thought back to his very first arrest. A bust, they used to call it in the old days. A bust? Why did they call it that? The term had always brought to his mind a vision of a pair of breasts, round and full, and eager to be caressed. He tried not to think about that sort of thing; it wasn’t proper to think about that kind of thing, because if you did then you would start thinking about other parts of female anatomy, and that would bring on thoughts of lust and sex--two more subjects that were the Devil’s traps. Yes, it was always best not to think about such things. Terminology such as that had been banned once the FLM had taken direct control over the military and all law enforcement agencies.

Warren’s first arrest (bust) had been in what had once been a middle-class neighborhood that had gradually fallen into decay. Dying trees, old cars junked at the curbs, and graffiti-sprayed fences and houses decorated the area. Everyone had complained about these blights in their city, but the local government did nothing about them because most of the city’s money was being spent on the politicians’ over-inflated salaries and on law enforcement programs.

A concerned citizen, taking advantage of one of those many anonymous-tip telephone numbers, had called in to report a possible drug deal that was going down in a neighbor’s home. There was loud rock and roll music (which was the real cause of the complaint, and the "concerned citizen" wanted to make certain that his neighbor was never heard from again), which, in the minds of many, was a sure tip-off that there was a lot of drug use going on. People were going in and out of the house at random, there were some beer bottles on the lawn, and there was much laughing and singing. With such activities going on, what else could it have been but some sort of a druggies’ celebration? They’re all out there, all those drug-crazed fiends, just waiting to grab innocent children--just eight, nine, and ten-year-old children!--and turn them into addicts and worse so they could sell their drugs to them, and then use them to sell to their friends at school. That was how drug use spread, wasn’t it? the citizen had asked the Guards when he filed his false report. Yes sir, the desk soldier had replied, that was exactly how drugs spread. ("But where does a ten-year-old child get the money to support one of these ‘hundred-dollar-a-day’ habits that we hear so much about?" another of the citizen’s neighbors had once asked. "What are you," the citizen countered with a suspicious snarl, "a Communist druggie yourself or something?") It’s a good thing you called us, sir, we’ll send some units out there right away.

Warren had been out of the Academy for barely a month, and the prospect of finally being in on an arrest, after those four long years of studying and preparing himself for a career in morals protection, had excited him. He could clearly remember approaching the house with his partner, a six-year veteran, and crawling over the back fence and hunkering down behind the bushes, waiting for the right moment. He was so proud of himself for having been the first to spot two suspects in the back yard--a young man and a woman who had been sitting on a blanket under a tree, gazing up at the stars and touching each other intimately. He had started to move forward when his partner had stopped him. "Not yet," the veteran had whispered. They waited for a few minutes longer, and a match flared, illuminating the man’s face. He hadn’t been any older than Warren himself, the rookie had noticed as the flame touched the tip of a cigarette. The match went out and the cigarette was passed to the woman, who had also taken a puff. "Now!" the veteran had said. They had needed to wait until the suspects had been engaged in a criminal activity, and the sight of them lighting and passing the joint back and forth was all that was necessary to establish probable cause--and it was up to the arresting officers to determine what "probable cause" was. Warren had leapt zealously to his feet, pointed a quivering pistol, and shouted, "Freeze! You’re under arrest!" The man and woman, startled, began to rise to their feet, and Warren shouted, "Go on, try it!" just like he had always heard in the cop movies. "Come on, try it! I’ll blow your brains out!" His finger had already begun to tighten on the trigger as he thought about all the children that these two criminals would destroy if he allowed them to roam free. His partner laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder and said, "Calm down, Elias, we’ve got them."

The "joint" turned out to be nothing but a common cigarette, but that didn’t matter. The suspects had not appeared to be under the influence of marijuana, but that didn’t matter, either. They had been on the same property with an acquaintance that happened to have had half an ounce of weed, and failure to report known possession of drugs to the authorities was enough to charge them with conspiracy to possess. Warren had been so very proud when they had taken the "addicts" to jail, showing everyone he saw that the handcuffs on the woman’s wrists were his. The criminals were booked and sent off to ten-year prison terms.

That morning, when his shift was over, Warren had gone home to his small apartment and prayed for forgiveness for having committed the heinous sin of pride. It had been the Lord, he told himself, who had directed him to those two criminals in the back yard; the Lord had pointed them out to him before his partner had seen them. It had been a sign from the Lord Himself that he had found his calling.

Warren sighed in fond memory.

There was another time, however, when Warren’s enthusiasm and indignant self-righteousness had lost him an arrest. There had been a man who had gone to the school board with a fiery complaint about religion being taught in the public school that his daughter attended. "Where the hell does a public school get off teaching creationism?" he had demanded. "I send my kid to school for an education, not to hear a bunch of Bible stories. Have you people ever heard of the First Amendment? The separation of church and state--does that ring any bells?"

"Mr. Winger," the school board president had said, after first calling the authorities--he had expected trouble from Mr. Winger; over the phone he had sounded very pissed off indeed, and the school board president had wanted the Guards there for protection. Warren, a sergeant at the time, had been one of the soldiers present. "Mr. Winger, the teaching of Creation science is standard curriculum these days. The secular humanists and the anti-God evolutionists have had free reign to spout their religion and ideas and theories for years; the Creation scientists simply want equal time to present their views."

"Equal time?" Winger had said, and had wondered how secular humanism--which, as near as he could tell, was defined as non-religious thought or action which was concerned with the interests and ideals of humanity--could be called a religion. It didn’t make sense. "I looked through my kid’s biology book, and there isn’t one word mentioned about evolution. If you’re so interested in ‘equal’ time, how come you don’t teach Buddhist or American Indian beliefs about the beginning of life? Why isn’t evolution mentioned at all? Hell, you people aren’t interested in equal time--you want it all."

"You may feel that way if you wish," the school board president said, "but--"

"Oh, thanks for your kind permission," Winger said sarcastically.

"--Creation science is a part of the school program."

"Religion should be taught at home and in the church, and not controlled by the goddamn State!"

"It is not religion!" the president had countered stridently, emboldened by the presence of the soldiers. "And we cannot make exceptions as to who learns what! Your daughter cannot and will not be excused from history or biology classes simply because you do not agree with some of the doctrines being taught."

Winger had glared at the school board president with cold rage. "Then I’ll pull her out of school," he had growled at last. "She is still my kid, and--"

"You do that," Warren had said, breaking in and stepping forward, "and you will be arrested as an unfit parent, and your daughter will be taken away from you by CPS and placed in a proper Christian foster home."

Winger looked at Warren and said nothing. The glare in his eyes, however, said it all for him. Without another word, he left the office.

"Call the school tomorrow," Warren had told the president. "If his daughter doesn’t show up for attendance, give me a call at this number." He handed him a card. It was a standard-sized business card, white with black old-English script.

The Winger girl did not show up for school the next day. It seemed, Warren had thought, that he’d kept his word about taking his daughter out of school. And I shall keep mine, Warren had thought. He and three other soldiers had gone to Winger’s rented home that same morning, but when they arrived there the place was empty. Some time during the night, Winger, his wife, and his daughter, and all the possessions that could be crammed into the car on such short notice, had all disappeared.

If only I had kept my mouth shut a little while longer, Warren thought, I could have had him. Vile heretics. His daughter is probably a prostitute by now.

But why hadn’t the Lord told him that Winger was planning to leave the city? Sergeant Warren could have had them all! And then he immediately took the question back, because one does not question the Lord, one merely accepts what He does.

He looked at his watch again. Still nothing on those replacement rotors that were supposed to be on their way. Damned slackers. Well, no matter. Time was really of little matter, whether the witch was on the move or not. After all, the Lord was on Colonel Warren’s side, and with the Lord on his side nothing could go wrong.

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

Valerie rode next to Keller during the trip back to Oscar’s commune. Oscar and Rob kept a wary eye on her, and when she would happen to look their way their eyes would quickly shift to the path ahead or to the surrounding trees and sky.

"Come on, you guys," she said at last. "You don’t really think I did that...do you?"

Oscar and Rob said nothing. They didn’t know if she did it herself, or if she had called on outside help to do it, or what. All they knew was that she had inherited a haunted house, and that a soldier had died under really, really weird supernatural circumstances. And now it also made them wonder about the witchcraft charge that was hanging over her head like an executioner’s axe; was there something to it after all?

"What about you, Keller? Are you afraid of me, too?"

"Of course not," he replied. "We all know you didn’t do that. Right, guys?"

He was answered by an almost palpable silence.

"I don’t know what the hell happened in there," Oscar finally said with a soft voice, almost as though he were afraid to be heard. He had known Valerie for years; she was the niece of one of his closest friends, and the daughter of the other. Of course he cared about her, and that was why he had gone with Keller to her aid; she was like his own daughter. But he had also gone for a selfish reason: to prevent the soldiers from reporting the fact that he and his extended family were all guilty of giving aid and comfort to a fugitive of The Law. It had been little surprise to him that Valerie could take care of herself, but it was the way in which she defended herself that scared him so much. What would happen, he could not help wondering, if he should unintentionally offend or anger her? Would he, too, wind up floating in mid-air with his neck crushed to a pulp?

He told himself his fears were groundless. She wouldn’t do that to him; they were old friends, and he had truly wanted to help her. He had nothing to fear from her. But the things he now knew she could do did more than unnerve him; they scared him something fierce.

"This is a very weird situation," he said at last. "I mean, I’ve never seen anything like that before."

"Hey, it’s a first for me, too," she said.

My God, Rob was thinking, how the hell did she do that?

"It wasn’t me," Valerie said, and Rob suddenly wondered if she was simply trying once more to convince them of that, or if she had somehow read his mind. He was beginning to believe it was the latter. "At least, I don’t think it was. I think it was Uncle Vince."

"Ryan?" Rob asked. "I doubt that. He’s been dead a long time."

"True," she agreed, and then smiled a little bit as she added, "but that doesn’t mean he’s gone."

***

"I mean it, Valerie," Julie was saying, "I really don’t think it’s safe for you to move in there. Why not stay here? There’s plenty of room."

"Thanks, Julie, but I can’t. It’s my home now, and I’m going to live there. Besides, I think Rob’s scared of me."

The two women were in Julie’s bedroom. Julie was reclining on the bed with one elbow supporting her, and Valerie was sitting in the window and watching the curved sliver of moon come up as an old Moody Blues compact disc--"Nights In White Satin"--played softly in the background. A fire in the fireplace and two oil lamps lighted the room. As they talked, a part of Valerie’s mind was outside; she was thinking that it looked as though they just might have themselves a full moon on Halloween this year.

Julie sat up and crossed her legs. "Look," she said. She rested her elbows on her knees and laced her fingers. "Two soldiers have already showed up there. That means someone is expecting to hear from them, right? What do you suppose is going to happen? How long do you think it’ll be before they send in a whole platoon to look for those guys? What are you going to do then?"

Maybe someone is expecting to hear from them, Valerie thought. Maybe they had already made their report and then found the place. Maybe they hadn’t been sent there at all, but were lost and had simply stumbled over the place. That wasn’t too hard to believe, she felt. A lot of unqualified people had joined the Foundation’s military because it was easier than going to college, and one could still get a modicum of an education and make a little money. It was a lot of maybes, but she felt that for the time being she was in no danger; the voice that had told her of the approach of the soldiers in Denver and in the desert was silent now. And after what she had been through, she was determined to stop and catch her breath while she could.

And if they did come for her, would Keller stay and help her? Helping to fix the place up was one thing, but possibly laying down his life for it was something else.

She sighed. "I don’t know," she said. "I appreciate your concern, I really do. But it’s my home now. And if the soldiers are going to come and get me, well...they’re gonna have a fight on their hands."

"You could get killed."

"I know. But I think I’d rather die fighting for what’s mine than get chased across the country again, or get thrown into one of their dungeons. I ran from here once already after they killed my family. Then they killed Tony and Jeff, and they chased me out of Colorado. I’m tired of running, and I figure it’s time I start fighting."

"Well, if that’s your decision, then I guess that’s it. But if you ever need help, you know where to come."

***

She was in the midst of house cleaning the next day when she allowed herself to be distracted by the books she had found in her mother’s trunk. She and Keller had returned this morning to perform the grisly job of disposing of the two bodies--to either bury them in the woods or dump them in a pit somewhere. Keller had suggested they just toss them into the river and let the current carry them out to sea, but Valerie had objected to this idea on environmental grounds. "There’s already enough shit in the water to worry about," she had said with a grim smile and a disparaging tone that actually made the cynical Keller wince slightly.

But when they got there, the two soldiers were gone. There had been no evidence of military activity in the area; if the soldiers had found the bodies, they would have been out interrogating everyone in the area. No vehicles had been seen on the narrow roads outside of the immediate area, and no horses had been heard trotting along the trails. The bodies had simply disappeared--much to Keller’s relief. He’d had no idea of how to deal with them. If the one body was still hanging by some supernatural force, how was he going to move it? Would it suddenly collapse on top of him, like some ghastly bundle of laundry? He was greatly relieved to find that the matter had been taken out of his hands. So with that problem solved, he had gone outside to work on the generator.

She looked around the living room to see how much more work she was in for, and watched the motes of dust as they floated silently through the shafts of sunlight that fell streaming through the windows and displaced by her movements, only to settle again where it would later be wiped away once more. I need a break, she told herself as she tossed the dust cloth onto one of the bookshelves she was cleaning. The seemingly unending dusting, sweeping and mopping would just have to wait for now.

Her down vest and boots were retired to the closet until the weather turned colder, and now she wore faded jeans, the ankle-high moccasins, and a spare tie-dyed t-shirt she had found the day before. She propped her feet on the coffee table as she sat on the sofa, opened her mother’s Book of Shadows, and began leafing through its pages. The entire book, perhaps a hundred pages or so, was written in Alex St. James’s own hand. The pages were filled with recipes, magic spells, herbal recipes, dreams, charms, rituals, and personal reflections. She stopped at an early page that showed a diagram of the pentacle she wore around her neck, and read the words that were gracefully written below.

"The pentagram, as drawn, or the pentacle, if it is an actual object, represents the five elements of creation," she read softly, "being Spirit, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. The circle around the five points represents the force of Life, or God or the Goddess, or the Great Spirit that connects them all. It also represents a circle of protection, meaning that the wearer of a pentacle is protected by the Powers of the Five Elements. The pentacle is always worn point up; if it is drawn, the pentagram’s point is always up, representing the predominance of the eternal Spirit over all. While the physical body dies, it is the divine spirit that lasts forever--and it is this belief that also supports our belief in reincarnation. The pentagram also represents a balance between the five elements, and it also represents humankind--head, arms, and legs--surrounded by the Circle of Protection, and the Circle of Life, Death and Rebirth.

"There are those who claim that it is the sign of the Devil; this simply is not true. Most of those people have been lied to, and are without malice propagating that lie--the rest are liars themselves. In the Craft, there is no Devil; the Devil is a creation of Christian mythology, used by the power-hungry to frighten the uneducated into submission and into the Christian fold. There are people who choose to worship this Devil, but those people were once Christians themselves who, for reasons of their own, became disillusioned with the Christian way. In their own quest for power over others, they choose to worship evil and to use evil to obtain their own goals. Not only have they stolen our symbol and inverted it, supposedly to represent a goat’s head (and what’s so evil about goats?), but they also invert the crucifix. Yet no one claims the crucifix--a common instrument of torture and execution in ancient Rome--to be a symbol of evil. The Christian faith created its own enemy, drove some of its people to follow it, and then claimed that enemy to be us."

She let the book rest in her lap as she examined the obsidian-and-silver pentacle that now lay against her chest. She studied it for a moment longer and watched the light sparkle from it, then let it drop back against her chest and the purple-and-white t-shirt as she selected another page.

"In true Witchcraft, we do not use what the Christians call ‘black magic.’ Magic--psychic energy, thought forms, or whatever one wishes to call it--is neither ‘white’ nor ‘black,’ it simply is; like electricity, or sunlight. Magic is used to achieve a desire or goal. But it does have a boomerang effect; as in the cycle of life and death, and with the cycle of the seasons, what goes around does eventually come around--so the more helpful and constructive energy we as Witches send out, the more it will return to us. And so it is with harmful and destructive energy. But we can and do use protective spells and talismans to deflect malice away from us, and return it to its sender. We let malicious people be responsible for their own actions. It is unwise to use magic for malicious purposes because of its likely repercussions."

She flipped a few pages back, scanning them.

"Above all, Witchcraft is a nature-based spiritual path," she read. "The Earth is our mother, and the Sky our father. We worship Nature, and we recognize the male and female aspects in all that surrounds us. We recognize and worship the Mother Goddess and her consort, the Antlered God of the Hunt and of the Forests. It is the Goddess who gives us the harvests of the fields, and it is the God who provides the hunters with game from the forests. And it is the sexual union of the Goddess and Her Consort that brings Life to the Earth..."

Valerie leaned back in the sofa and sighed. Witchcraft, real Witchcraft, was nothing like what the Christian fanatics had been spewing for so many centuries. And it was other books with similar ideas that not only the FLM had been burning, but so had the Inquisition of Europe throughout the Middle Ages, the Puritans of Salem and the rest of seventeenth-century New England, and the self-appointed guardians of "traditional" values of today’s America. All such books had been purged from school libraries, public libraries and bookstores, and had been thrown into funeral pyres to be burned to ashes.

She flipped forward a few pages and found a section that was concerned with ghosts and surviving personalities. Not especially relevant to the Craft, but Alex St. James had apparently thought it important enough to copy some notes from books she had read on the subject.

According to some people, a ghost was defined as being the surviving personality of a person who had died. Some called this a kind of psychic energy that had been expended by the person in question, existing where the person had died. According to some mediums, the living, providing that the person who wished to use it knew how to use it, could use this energy. Sometimes, however, someone could also use the energy unknowingly, especially in times of extreme duress. This energy could also, of its own accord, take possession of another person, or even of an animal. The energy was especially strong if the person in question had been very emotional, or if he or she had died at the hands of another, or by his or her own hand. And sometimes the surviving personality would not go on to the other side of death for reasons of its own; perhaps because the person felt that his or her mission in life had not been completed, and wanted to remain until it was.

She looked at the pentacle again. So, she wondered, had it really been her Uncle Vince who had come back to help her? Or had it been the soldier’s own malice, reflected back by the protective talisman, that killed him? There were so many different theories, and no answers.

The stereo suddenly blasted to life with an explosion of static that almost blew out the speakers. Valerie leapt from the sofa with a loud and startled scream, and with her heart suddenly pounding as though it was ready to explode against the inside of her chest. She looked around the room with her eyes widened in terror, but there was no one there. She went quickly to the stereo and turned the volume down, and stood frozen with her hand on it as she scanned the room carefully. "Uncle Vince?" she said quietly, cautiously. "Mom?" She closed her eyes and cleared her mind, and tried to pick up on any vibrations there might be of the unseen presence, but she drew a blank. Then a door slammed at the back of the house, and she heard footsteps. They were slow and not too heavy, and they came closer and closer as they reverberated through the wooden floor. Whatever was causing them didn’t care at all about stealth now; it knew where she was. Valerie instinctively began to retreat toward the front door. And as the door to the kitchen began to swing open she held her breath; her heart pounded even harder as her terror mounted...

"I got your generator working," Keller said as he came in through the kitchen door. "It wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be, so you now have...electricity... Hey, are you okay? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost or something."

Her breath exploded from her lungs in a huge sigh of relief, and her hand went to her chest, as if by placing it there she could slow her racing heart. "Jesus Christ, Keller!" she said. "You scared the shit out of me! What the hell are you trying to do, give me a fucking heart attack or something?"

He cringed slightly, with mixed feelings of hurt and puzzlement. "Sorry," he said. "I thought you’d be glad to hear it was working... I’ll go disconnect it." He shrugged and turned to leave. Women, he thought. Go figure.

Valerie took another breath and forced herself to relax. "No, I’m sorry," she said. "I was reading some stuff about ghosts, and this place and the stereo suddenly coming on like that...it all kind of caught me off guard. I’m sorry."

Keller felt a little better, now that he understood. The place had been getting to him a little, too. Especially after having seen that soldier hanging there, and then later vanishing…

And then he suddenly remembered that he had left the stereo on when he tested it that first day here. He wisely decided that he didn’t have to remind her of that if he expected to keep his head from getting pulled off.

But somehow he couldn’t resist a little dig at her. "Does this mean I’m not going to get kicked in the balls after all?"

Valerie shook her head with a wry chuckle. "Yeah. For the moment, anyway."

"Oh, good, I feel so much better now," he said dryly. "Listen, you need to get out of here for a while. Let’s go back to Oscar’s and get something to eat, okay? I don’t know about you, but I’m starving."

"You go ahead," she told him. "I’ve still got a little cleaning to do, and I don’t want to leave all this stuff lying around. I’ll catch up with you later."

He looked at her doubtfully. "Are you sure you’re okay here?"

"I’m okay."

He still wasn’t too sure. "Okay," he said reluctantly. "It won’t be long till sunset. And don’t forget about the wolves out there."

"Gotcha. I’ll see you in a little while."

"Okay," he said again, still doubtful, and then left.

After watching him ride out of sight, she returned to the sofa and the Book of Shadows, and began reading again. She flipped through some more pages and stumbled across a section that described an initiation ritual. Reading it over a few times, she substituted some phrases here and there that would allow her to initiate herself. She had never even been a student of the Craft, but since her mother had been a Witch--and she had no idea of whether or not the tradition went back any further--she decided that her mother’s legacy would provide the foundation on which to begin a family tradition. She picked up the book, got to her feet, and headed for the attic.

It was only late afternoon, but the attic--her mother’s old temple room--was already dark. She lit an oil lamp and hung it on a nail next to the door, where it cast a dim glow throughout the room. She approached the trunk where her mother’s ritual tools were kept and opened the lid slowly, then began removing from it the items she needed. She set them on the floor next to her, closed the lid again, and placed a large square of black velvet over it so that the trunk could serve as an altar. She set the two solid gold candlesticks at the far corners and placed a tall white candle in each, then lit them. She placed four colored candles in their wooden holders, and set them around her at the cardinal points of the compass; at the east she set a white candle, at the south she set a red one, at the west she placed a blue candle, and at the north she set a green one. Each color represented a different element: white for air, red for fire, blue for water, and green for earth. She lit each in its turn, moving clockwise, and then stepped away into a corner to undress so she could perform the rite "skyclad"--so that a witch’s energy could flow unimpeded by clothing. Some said it wasn’t really necessary to perform any ritual nude; some witches scoffed at such an idea while others swore by it. Alexandra Ryan’s Book of Shadows suggested that there was a time and place to go skyclad, and other times and places not to; for this self-initiation, Valerie chose to go nude because she believed that for her very first ritual she ought to present herself to the Goddess and Her Consort the way they had made her.

She approached the altar and knelt before it, then picked up the tools from the floor and placed them on the altar. The first was her mother’s athame--a black-handled dagger with a long and sharp, double-edged stainless-steel blade that flashed like quicksilver. This she placed directly in front of her. Next was a redwood disk on which a pentagram had been carved, and she placed this directly between the two candlesticks. Next was the censer, a clay bowl into which she poured some powdered sandalwood incense, and she placed this to the right. To the left she placed a small yet sturdy silver chalice that she had earlier filled from the kitchen sink. Kneeling again in front of the altar, she lit the two tall white candles. With the flame turned off at the oil lamp, the six candles were her only source of light. She opened the Book of Shadows and read the ritual one more time. She settled back to sit with her legs folded beneath her, then cleared her mind and let her breathing slow. She meditated for some time, considering all of the ramifications of what she was about to undertake; this was a serious matter, and she hoped she would be able to live up to the promises that she was about to make.

She picked up the athame and held it in both hands. She raised its point toward the ceiling and held it there for several minutes as she felt herself drawing energy from the Earth and Sky, and from all that surrounded her. Soon she saw that the blade didn’t look so much silver as it did a brilliant shade of bluish-white--and she noticed that as the glow grew brighter, it also began to spread. It crept to the black wooden hilt, and then further downward to her hands, along her arms, and soon her entire body was engulfed. She rose gracefully to her feet in one smooth movement, and as she faced north she brought the dagger down, keeping her arms straight, until it was pointing at the thick green candle that burned in its holder on the floor. A beam of blue-white light suddenly shot from the tip of the athame, starling her. Her amber eyes, shining in the candlelight, were wide with fascination, and in a nervous voice she began to speak.

"I cast this Circle of Power to provide me with a sacred space between the worlds of the physical and the spiritual, so that I may conduct this rite in peace and serenity. As I will, so mote it be." She slowly turned clockwise, and the beam of light left a trail on the floor, connecting the candles in a large circle. When this was done, the beam of light disappeared from the dagger’s tip, as though she had switched off a flashlight. She laid the knife on the altar and picked up the bowl of burning incense, and clouds of fragrant smoke rose into the air as she raised the censer high overhead and faced east. "I call upon the forces of Air. I ask that you be here with me now, to attend and to protect this rite. And by your power"--here she began walking clockwise again, staying inside the glowing circle of light and leaving a trail of smoke behind her--"I seal and consecrate this Circle." After completing her circuit, she set the censer back down on the altar and turned to face south. She lifted the red candle that burned there, and called out--not as nervously this time--"I call upon the forces of Fire. I ask that you be here with me now, to attend and to protect this rite. And by your power"--she carried the candle clockwise around the circle--"I seal and consecrate this Circle." She set the candle back at the southern quarter of the circle, and then lifted the silver chalice of water. She invoked the forces of Water and sealed the circle, and then did the same with the wooden pentagram as she invoked the forces of Earth and sealed the circle by their power. She replaced the pentagram on the altar and knelt again, sitting back on her feet once more. She cleared her mind again to meditate for a short time. Orange light flickered on her bare skin, which was now shining with a thin sheen of perspiration and excitement, and she breathed more deeply as she drew more energy from the earth and sky, and all of her surroundings.

"I, Valerie St. James..." She stopped. That didn’t sound right. As much as she respected her father’s family, she thought that if she were going to start a matriarchal family tradition dedicated to a Goddess that was represented by nature, reason and freedom rather than a patriarchal god of artificiality, fear and repression, she may as well do it the way she felt was really right; and the name she chose to use would be the name to be handed down from mother to daughter, generation after generation.

"I, Valerie Ryan, the daughter of Alexandra and granddaughter of Victoria, call upon the Mother Goddess and Father God. I ask you to be here now, and to witness this rite of initiation. I ask you to grant me the power of a sister of the Craft, and in return I swear by my life and all that I hold dear that I will do my best to do your will. I am prepared to lay down my life, if I must, to defend our Mother Earth, and to defend my sisters and brothers in the Craft."

Lightning flashed brilliantly outside, and a moment later an explosion of thunder shook the house and forest, almost as though the Gods themselves were answering her; and as she gazed somewhere beyond the ceiling, with her eyes wide and her emotions a swirling blend of anticipation and hopefulness, Valerie was abruptly and unswervingly convinced that they actually were. As she took a deep breath to steady herself, she felt a sudden rush of energy that was both intoxicating and stimulating that seemed to shoot up from somewhere deep inside the ground to slide up warmly between her legs and pass through her. Thunder clapped again, sending another slow and sensuous wave through her, this time coming from behind and passing through her like a long, soft, pre-orgasmic wave that actually made her gasp and moan softly. She sat for a moment with a surprised smile, wondering what was happening to her and looking forward to finding out with delicious anticipation. And then she could feel another wave coming on, coming up from deep within the earth’s molten core and moving through the ground before it even reached her. Oh my God, she thought, grinning broadly in eager expectation as she closed her eyes and let her head fall back, here it comes!

The third wave took her in a nearly blinding, blue-white flash, and she was lifted through the ceiling and into the darkening sky, spinning in a swirling vortex of energy that carried her higher and higher. The house shrank below her and was swallowed by the trees, and there was the roaring of a hurricane wind in her ears. She went higher still, and as she looked upward she could see the stars, so bright and clear, flashing and streaking around her. The moon, a larger sickle of silver than before, grew closer and closer, and she felt that she could actually reach her hand out and touch it. And still higher she rose, with the forest itself shrinking and becoming nothing more than a patch of green on the face of the earth. The Earth itself began to fall away from her, and the higher she went the stronger was the feeling of exhilaration that coursed through her like a jolt of adrenalin.

"My gift to you," whispered a soft voice inside of her mind; a soft and feminine voice that was not her own. "This is my gift to you..."

And then she was exploding in ecstasy, and flying off in a thousand directions at once. Concepts of time and distance no longer existed as she raced by thousands of stars and planets in an instant, examining each with spellbound fascination as she passed. There were bright, multi-colored planets of rich hues with multiple moons, and others had binary stars that were linked together with glowing red lemniscates of burning hydrogen, all stark and brightly colorful against the pitch blackness of space. She felt as though she could fly forever in this elated state, streaking across the universe like a meteor clothed in flame or walking naked across the surfaces of barren, silver moons. And she suddenly knew that she could come back any time she wished.

But as much as she enjoyed exploring the universe, she wanted very much to return home. And with that thought, she was gently yet quickly falling backward. She flashed past the planets and raced back through time and space, and as she slowly turned over to spread her arms and legs wide like a parachutist in free-fall, the Earth rushed up to meet her. She could see the planet in its entirety; so blue and peaceful, and fragile, spinning its way slowly through the universe... And all of a sudden, she was struck with such a strong sense of love for her home planet that it startled her. It really is a spaceship, she thought, a spaceship with a self-perpetuating life support system--a cyclic, constantly self-renewing ecosystem that gave life to billions of forms. A system that now, thanks to mankind’s dangerous activities, needed constant monitoring and guarding to be certain that nothing more went out of balance. Because if it did break down, it would mean the end of all life.

I can’t let that happen, she thought. Damn it, I won’t let it happen. I’ll do all that I can to protect it, whether I have to die or kick ass. I promise.

"...as you are my gift to all," that same soft and smiling voice finished with a whisper, both inside of her and outside.

As much fun as it had been to explore the universe, it was still so very good to be home again. The forest appeared beneath her, and then she could see the house with the warm glow that came from its attic.

She was suddenly back in her body and awake. She opened her eyes slowly, surprised to find herself lying on the hard wooden floor, and she slowly raised herself on her hands to look around. Wow, she thought in wide-eyed wonder. She glanced around again and saw how far down the candles around her had burned. How long was I...? She immediately rejected the idea that it might have been a dream. No sirree, she thought, she had been to all those planets. And as beautiful as they were--even more so than the incredible special effect worlds of those space-travel science fiction movies--on none of them had she seen any signs of life. Only on her home planet.

Home...

The word had a whole new meaning for her now.

Panting softly and shimmering with a light sheen of perspiration, and luxuriating in a deep, mellow afterglow, she sat cross-legged to face her altar once more. She removed the silver pentacle from around her neck and laid it on the altar, then lit more incense. She picked it up again, and passed it through the smoke as she murmured an invocation of power, appealing to the powers of Air for their protection. Then she passed it through the flame of one of the altar candles and asked the forces of Fire to be with her and to protect her. Then she dipped it into the water in the chalice and touched it to the wooden pentagram, murmuring similar invocations each time for each element represented. She then held it tightly in her fist, closing her eyes and concentrating, and forcing her energy into the talisman. At last she uncurled her fingers again, and saw that the pentacle was glowing and pulsating in rhythm to her own heartbeat with the same blue-white light that had erupted from the athame, and which now emanated from her circle. She slipped the leather lace back over her head and around her neck, and the talisman continued to glow warmly against the glistening, bare skin between her high, round breasts. "Thank you," she said softly, addressing...the Goddess? The Guardians of the Four Directions? The Great Spirit? It went by many names; and names, after all, were not that important. What was important was that this Spirit was real. It was real to her. After what she had been shown, how could she possibly not believe it? With her amber eyes shimmering with tears of both joy and gratitude, she softly repeated, "Thank you."

She lit more incense. With her breathing finally slowing to normal and the perspiration drying on her skin, she picked up the wooden pentagram and passed it counter-clockwise around the circle, banishing it by the power of Earth. She did the same with the chalice of water, the burning red candle on the floor behind her and the smoking clay bowl of incense, and then picked up the athame again and stood facing north. "Merry meet, and merry part," she said softly, and then pointed the dagger at the green candle at the north. She slowly turned counter-clockwise to retract the flickering blue energy that made up the circle of light until she returned again to the north, until there was nothing left. "And merry meet again," she finished at last. Having bade farewell to the Spirits, the ritual was over. She blew out all but the two altar candles.

Without bothering to dress, and without bothering to put away her ritual tools--the attic was her temple room now, and her tools would remain left in place for her own private display--she went briskly down the stairs and outside. It was fully dark now, and the cold air made her shiver uncontrollably. But she didn’t mind; she wanted to laugh and cry at the same time, she felt so good. She spread her legs wide and raised her arms high. "I love you!" she shouted to the forest, the black night sky, and to the thousands of sparkling stars overhead; and her echo sounded as though the Goddess of Nature was answering her. "I love you!" she shouted again, as loud as she could, and again her echo answered her. She slowly lowered her arms and shivered again, but she stayed outside for a short time to star gaze. It was so incredibly beautiful out here... It was the absolute opposite of her old neighborhood; no smog, no noise, none of those damned cars with their blaring horns and thudding boom-boxes, no screeching of tires...no sirens, no shouting soldiers whose voices were accompanied by gunshots, and no fear... Here there was fresh air--it was almost overpowering, it was so sharp and clear--there was beauty, and there was peace.

She rubbed slowly at the gooseflesh on her arms. It was getting colder out here, but it was also so beautiful that she hated to go back inside and dress. But she had to get back to Oscar’s place. People were waiting for her, and by now they were probably pretty worried.

She returned to the attic and slipped into her jeans and moccasins, then picked up her brassiere and held it by a shoulder strap with one finger. She regarded it with a cool and mildly disdainful look. Instead of slipping it on, she slipped on her t-shirt and her buckskin shirt, tied it shut, and then went downstairs to the living room where--in an unconscious imitation of the women’s liberationists of the 1960s--she flung the brassiere into the fireplace. What with all the clothes around here that were still in surprisingly good condition, she felt she could toss out everything she had brought from what she now disdainfully called "that city."

She went out to where the horse still stood with its reins tied to the porch rail. "Poor you," she said with sincere sympathy. "You’ve been standing out here all this time, waiting for me to come back so you could go home and eat." She patted its neck. "I’m sorry." She mounted it and started for Oscar’s place.

Fortunately, the horse knew the way back. Even though Valerie could see quite well, the area had become unfamiliar to her as her memories of this place dimmed over the years. She had forgotten much about it over the last decade, but she was confident that it all would come back to her quickly.

As her eyes became even more fully adjusted to the dark, she found that it wasn’t as difficult to see as she had expected it would be. The night sounds of the crickets and the gentle breeze were much clearer than before, and the silences between the sounds seemed much richer and more profound. She breathed deeply, relishing the seemingly concentrated scents of firs and pines, and she looked up at the night sky above her to wonder where all that lightning and thunder had come from on such a cloudless night...

The land brought back so many fond memories of the long after-dinner walks she had taken with her mother, and the talks that she had long ago had with her father and uncle echoed faintly in the back of her mind. And she remembered the secret treasure hunts with her younger brother, and the time she had lost him in the fog, only to find him later crying in fright...

A twig snapped.

To anyone else it would have sounded ominously soft and stealthy, but Valerie jumped as though it had been a gunshot. The horse continued to move along at a leisurely pace, but Valerie’s eyes and ears were alert. She scanned the path ahead, then looked cautiously behind. She could see nothing, but she knew she was not alone out here. Thoughts began flashing through her mind, thoughts that were not her own; they were of stealth and cunning, thoughts of hunting and running, and of the kill... She listened carefully, but heard nothing else.

She turned her attention back to the trail in time to see a huge gray shape lope silently across the path ahead, and into the deeper darkness of the trees. Then she heard a soft growling, and it brought to mind what Dutch Jackson had told Keller a few nights ago. And Julie had mentioned them, too. The wolves were everywhere now, accustomed to the northern California climate after they had spread from their final stronghold in Alaska to reclaim their stolen lands.

The gray shape--or was it another?--seemed to be moving alongside the path, darting deftly through the trees. With her heart hammering in her chest, she leaned forward slowly and reached into one of the saddlebags. She groped around in it for a moment, and then pulled out the black, four-cell flashlight. She pointed it ahead, thumbed the rubber button, and the bright beam of light fell on the wolf. The damn thing was huge; well over a hundred pounds, probably closer to two, and with yellow eyes reflecting in the dark. The ears were up and the sharp fangs gleamed with their points visible above and below the lines of the black lips, and cold narrow chips of amber gazed at her with great interest against the steady glow of the light. Valerie’s heart pounded in her chest, and she urged the horse to gallop with a sharp jab of her heels; but it continued to move along at its casual pace, apparently oblivious to the present danger. She swept the beam from side to side, and she caught a quick glimpse of another wolf as it moved quickly from one side of the path to the other. My God, she thought, how many of them are there? There was a pair on each side of her, and she sensed that there were even more behind her, surrounding her and moving in closer. Sweat broke out on her skin, and when she shivered this time it was not because of the cold. Her hands trembled, and sweat from them soaked into the reins.

And then she saw the lights of the commune. She nudged the horse again, and it picked up only a little more speed as it carried her into the clearing at last. One of the wolves ran ahead of her (Oh God, it’s cutting me off! she thought in near panic), and stopped at the edge of the clearing to sniff the air. It stared at the lights of the house as she approached, and then it turned to watch her again. Valerie rode past the wolf, expecting to be felled by the whole pack, and already feeling the tearing of fangs as they ripped into her flesh--and she was out here without a weapon, completely defenseless.

The wolf watched her like the predator it was, and growled menacingly as she passed by. When she reached the clearing, she cast a quick, nervous look over her shoulder, and wondered why she hadn’t been attacked; maybe they were just warning her not to invade their territory again. Hey, don’t you worry, pal, she silently told them as she approached the corral, I won’t.

As near as she could count in the darkness, as she reached the safety the gate, there had been half a dozen of them by the time the last wolf had turned and disappeared back into the darkness.

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

Seven-year-old Kelly Corey (K.C. to her friends) had been feeling slow and listless all day. When she had awakened this morning her throat had been feeling a little sore and her nose was a little stuffy, and every muscle in her body felt tired. The last thing she wanted to do was get up and move around a lot, but there were things that she had to do today; her chores around the house were not about to take care of themselves, and she took great pride in being a responsible part of the household. She had chickens to feed and eggs to collect (and the hen house needed to be cleaned again--"Pee-ew!" she thought), but this morning she just didn’t have the energy for it. She sneezed frequently and her fatigued muscles began to ache and pound with a dull throb, and her sinuses felt as though they were packed with concrete. Her throat now felt as though it had been abraded with the coarsest sandpaper, and every cough was a rasping agony that made her chest rattle horribly. It worried her parents to see her like this; usually she couldn’t wait to get outside, but now all she wanted to do was just lie on the sofa and clutch a homemade stuffed doll, and keep wrapped in a heavy blanket. While she drifted in and out of a restless sleep, her worried mother had been keeping a close eye all day, checking her temperature every hour. By dinnertime it had reached 104, and Karen had taken her upstairs and put her to bed, then had tried to get some hot soup down her. It always came back up less than a minute later. Karen told Oscar that he’d better get hold of the doctor on the CB radio.

When Valerie finally got in, still shaking a little from her encounter with the wolves, she saw Oscar sitting at the radio, microphone in hand. Karen was just now coming down the stairs. "Hi Oscar. Is Keller around?"

"He went out with Rob, trying to hunt up a radiator. They ought to be back in an hour or so." Then, into the mike he said, "Three hours?"

"I’m sorry, Oscar," said Dr. Bennet, "that’s as soon as I can get there. I’ll try to be there sooner, but I can’t make any promises. Just keep her warm and quiet, and I’ll get there when I can."

Oscar sighed in resignation. "Okay, Pat. We’ll be waiting."

As Valerie slowly walked toward the kitchen, her eyes moved from Oscar’s worried face to Karen’s, and then back again. "Something wrong?"

"Kelly’s sick," Karen said. "Pat Bennet, the local doctor, can’t get out here for another three hours or so." She looked at Valerie with red, moist eyes. "I’m scared. This thing just flared up today; I don’t know if it’s some damned virus left over from the bio-war or what. She’s burning with fever, she can’t keep food down, and—" Her voice choked on a sob.

Valerie went to her and placed a comforting arm around her shoulders. "Easy," she whispered soothingly. "Take it easy. Where is she?"

"Upstairs."

Valerie went up to the girl’s bedroom. She gently pushed the door open and poked her head inside. "Hi Kelly," she said. "Can I come in?"

Kelly opened her eyes and looked to see who it was. "Oh, hi Valerie," she said weakly. "Sure, come on in."

She went to sit on the edge of the bed. "Hi," she said again, with a low, soft and throaty voice that would have been perfect for late-night radio on a mellow jazz station. "I heard you weren’t feeling well, so I thought I’d come up to see you. What’s the matter?"

"I don’t know," Kelly replied with a hoarse, weak voice. "I just feel sick. All day it’s been getting worse and worse."

Valerie laid her hand across the child’s forehead. "Yeah, you do feel kinda hot. Bet you got a tummy ache, too, don’t you?"

"Yeah..."

"Yeah..." She was watching her carefully with a troubled look in her eyes as she gently brushed a few strands of sugar-brown hair from Kelly’s forehead. "You know, when I was about your age, maybe a little older, I got really sick one day. I felt just the same way you do right now. Know what it was?"

"Huh uh." She shook her head slightly.

"Some berries I ate. One or two of them tasted really good, y’know? So I ate a whole big bunch of ‘em. It turned out they were kinda poisonous. If I had just eaten a couple I would’ve been okay, but they were so good I went and ate a whole ton of ‘em. I don’t suppose you got into the same berries I did, huh?"

"No. I didn’t eat anything all day."

So much for poisoning, Valerie thought. We’ve got a real disease of some kind here. "Well, listen. You just take it easy for now, okay? I’ll be back in a little while to see you."

"‘Kay," she said weakly.

She slowly rose from the bed and headed back down to the living room. As she went down the stairs she suddenly remembered something he had read in the Book of Shadows, something that just might work to break this fever.

"Any idea of what happened?" Karen asked as she met her at the foot of the stairs.

"It’s not poisoning, that’s for sure."

Karen’s anxiety grew even worse. "Poisoning?"

"Poisoning?" Julie asked as she came out of the kitchen. "Someone complaining about my cooking again? And speaking of which, Valerie, where’ve you been? You said you were going to help with dinner--"

"Not now, Julie, we’ve got an emergency here. Kelly’s burning up with a fever." She turned to Karen. "Karen, I want to try something--is it okay with you if I take her back to my place?"

"Your place? Why? Pat said he’d be here--"

"In three hours, if not longer. I don’t think we should wait that long, and everything I need is at my place."

"Why can’t you just get your stuff and bring it here?" Karen asked. "It’s cold out, and I don’t want to expose her to anything out there."

"I understand. But there’s too much to bring back, and I can get started a lot sooner if I just take her there."

"What about the wolves?" Oscar asked. "You’d both be pretty dead if one of them got to you."

Damn it, he’s right, she thought. Then she said, "The wolves won’t bother us." I hope, she added silently. "I just rode through a whole pack of them, and all they did was watch."

"A pack of them? Forget it!"

"Damn it, Oscar, I think I can help her! If we sit here and wait for the doctor she may not survive. Do you know what three more hours of a fever like that can do? I can at least try to treat her. I realize it isn’t exactly established professional medicine, but I think... No, damn it--" she suddenly amended with a new sense of determination, both in her eyes and in her voice "--I know I can help her! Let me do this, Oscar--right now I’m the best bet you’ve got."

Karen and Oscar looked at each other, fearfully pleading and dreadfully uncertain. "Okay," he said at last. "Let me get my coat."

"No. I have to take her alone."

"What!?"

"The treatment is... It’s a private and personal process, and I can’t have anyone uninitiated with me."

What the hell is that supposed to mean? he thought, but what he asked was, "You want to take her alone through wolves and...and with no protection? No! I won’t have it!"

"Oscar, please!" she implored. She turned to his wife. "Karen?"

Karen looked at her husband with pleading eyes. "I think we should let her try. We can always send Pat over to her place when he gets here. It’s better than waiting here, isn’t it?"

He looked at Valerie again. She wanted to take his little girl out there alone for some secret treatment in a haunted house with wolves all over the place, to a house where she had killed a soldier with magic and left him hanging in mid-air... With that kind of power, what other things might she be capable of doing? And she seemed as desperate to give help as he and Karen were to have it, almost as though her own life depended upon it.

"Okay," he said at last. "I just hope you really can help."

"I’ll do my best, I promise." She left Karen to wrap Kelly in a heavy blanket while she went outside to saddle a fresh horse. She came back a few minutes later, picked her up, and then they were racing through the darkened forest on her way back to the Ryan ranch--to Home.

No wolves appeared this time--good thing, too, since she had said she wouldn’t cross their territory again--but she knew they were out there somewhere, and close by. Had they reappeared, she surely would have expected the horse to react violently to their presence--to probably throw her and the child, and to bolt in blind terror and leave them to the predators. She knew she should be wary of them, but she also knew that she had to get Kelly to her house as quickly as possible. So with one arm tightly wrapped around the girl, she snapped the reins and kicked with her heels, urging the horse on with a loud "Hyah! C’mon!" Cold wind streamed through her dark hair and tore at her face, and the horse’s hooves thundered against the dirt path as they raced through the night, weaving and dodging through the trees and being guided by forces that she was still not even beginning to understand.

When they arrived at the house, she quickly dismounted and rushed Kelly inside, and let the panting horse find its own way to the nearest supply of grass and fresh water. She put the girl on the sofa and tucked the blanket under her chin, then went out to the barn where, while cleaning earlier this afternoon, she had found several metal buckets and a large wooden tub. She built a fire in the fireplace in the living room and in the wood stove in the kitchen, and then filled the buckets at the hand pump out back. She brought them in and placed most of them near the fire, and the rest she placed on the wood stove. Then she went back outside to roll the heavy tub up the steps and across the kitchen, and into the living room. Making another trip to the kitchen, she found a teakettle, filled it with water, and placed this on the stove also.

Between the fire and the physical exertion, she was breaking out in a sweat. She took off the buckskin shirt and tossed it onto a nearby chair, then pulled off her moccasins and laid them aside. Moving quickly, she went up the stairs and into the attic, and collected her ritual tools and placed them in the square of black velvet, then gathered the corners to form a bag. She brought the bundle down to the living room and opened it, laying it flat on the floor, and arranged her tools on the makeshift altar. She placed the four colored candles as she had done before, then placed the small mason jars of various dried herbs next to the altar. The Book of Shadows lay open before her so she could read it easily, and she took one more look around to make sure everything was as she wanted it.

"Okay," she said softly. She wiped her brow with the back of one forearm, then went to check the water. At last it was warm enough, and she poured the buckets into the tub, testing the temperature to make sure that it wasn’t too hot.

In order to assure the easy flow of her energy, she decided it would be best to perform this rite skyclad. She peeled off her shirt and jeans and tossed them away, then went to the sofa and unwrapped Kelly. She felt it would be safe enough to undress her also, even though she was still burning with fever, because it was now so very warm inside and because she wanted to insure Kelly’s ability to receive her energy unencumbered by layers of heavy clothing. She lay Kelly near the altar, and then quickly cast the Circle. Sitting next to her, she began to divide portions of dried dandelion, red clover, ginger, comfrey and several other herbs, and ground them together with a small mortar and pestle. She poured the now powdered herbs into the chalice and added some steaming waster from the kettle that now rested near her, and let the brew sit still for a few minutes as the herbs released their compounds.

Between the flickering light of the candles and the fireplace, the white clouds of incense smoke, and the steam from the tub, Valerie could feel herself slipping into a trance. Not a passive one, where one would sit back and allow things to happen, but rather an active trance, where she was directing and being directed by unseen powers.

She stirred the mixture in the chalice with the tip of the athame, and as she did she suddenly became aware of that same blue-white light from before. Only now it was not just her that glowed, but the entire inside of the Circle; it began at its inner edge and formed a swirling cone of power that spiraled upward and peaked somewhere not far beyond the ceiling. Supernatural forces had indeed answered her desperate call; help had arrived once again. Only this time it was in the form of a warm, loving and comforting presence...and suddenly Valerie knew in her heart, and totally without question, that she--like her mother and unknown generations before her--really was a Witch.

A soft breeze brushed at her dark hair, but she didn’t notice it. She was barely conscious of her own movements now as she helped Kelly to sit up and brought the chalice to her lips. The semi-conscious girl moaned once before drinking, but said nothing. Valerie could see nothing outside of the circle; the light that formed the Cone of Power was totally opaque now, blocking out the entire room and cutting her off from the physical world. Yet her vision inside the Circle--this other dimension--was perfectly clear.

She laid Kelly down again, and then stretched her arms forward and held her hands, palms down, a couple of inches over the girl’s body and slowly rocked back, moving her hands from Kelly’s head to her feet. She leaned forward and repeated the movements slowly, rocking back and forth, slowly passing her hands over the girl. She had no idea of how long she did this, and she watched in fascination as energy flowed from the Circle and into her, and then out of her through her hands and into Kelly. Perspiration formed on her bare skin and ran down her sides, and trickled down her chest and back. Please, dear Lady, she silently and desperately called out, not sure of what else to do. Please, let this work.

The light inside the Circle flared brilliantly, like a sun going supernova; it happened so quickly, she almost missed it. And then it and the cone were gone. Only a residual glow surrounded Kelly, and in a moment this, too, was absorbed by the girl. She stiffened for a moment with a short gasp, and then she relaxed, and at the same moment Valerie nearly fell forward. She caught herself as her hands hit the wooden floor with a thud, stopping before she collapsed completely from sudden exhaustion. She leaned back and began to draw more Earth energy, then stood and picked up the athame. With it she opened a doorway in the northeast quadrant of the Circle--the Cone of Power was gone now, and the entire living room was once again revealed to her, but she would not cross the line of the Circle without properly opening a way in and out--and then lifted Kelly in her arms and gently carried her to the tub, and lowered her into it. The water was too deep for a semi-conscious girl her size, so Valerie stepped into it herself, settled down comfortably, and let the girl sit in her lap as she held her close. Together, they soaked for better than half an hour in the warm, comforting water.

When she finally rose with Kelly in her arms and stepped out of the tub, she wrapped her in the blanket again and laid her on the sofa. Dripping water onto the floor, she re-entered the Circle and knelt before the altar. "Powers of Air, I thank you for attending and protecting this Circle and this Rite. Return in peace to your realm, and Blessed Be." She blew out the white candle that burned in the east, then turned south and dismissed the powers of Fire. She did the same with the powers of Water, facing west, and with Earth as she faced north, blowing out each candle in turn. With the athame, she banished the Circle itself, thanked the Goddess, and then went upstairs to the attic. There, she retrieved the hooded black cloak from the trunk and threw it around her damp shoulders, and then started back for the living room. She stumbled once from fatigue, and nearly fell; she reflexively grabbed onto the railing, and proceeded slowly down until she reached the sofa. She sat, threw back the cloak, then unwrapped Kelly from the blanket and held her close to share her unimpeded energy with her patient, as two people would share body heat in the middle of a blizzard. She pulled the heavy cloak back over so it covered both of them, and cradled Kelly’s head against her and closed her eyes. In less than a minute, they were both soundly asleep.

***

Brilliant sunlight streamed in through an eastern window to gently warm one side of Kelly’s face. The girl slowly twisted and squirmed in Valerie’s arms, and stretched languidly, and then opened her eyes. Sleepily, she raised her head and looked around. Puzzled, the first thing she noticed was that this wasn’t her home; yet she was not in the least bit alarmed. And then she noticed that the arms she slept in were not those of her mother, and still she wasn’t alarmed. Oh yeah, she thought as the memories came back, I know her. She knuckled sleep from her eyes and sighed deeply. She closed her eyes and laid her head against Valerie’s breast again as she snuggled against her comforting warmth, and tried to go back to sleep.

Valerie awoke when she felt movement in her arms. Squinting slightly against the morning sun, she looked at Kelly and then smiled. "Good morning," she said with a soft, dry voice. "How’re you feeling?" She touched Kelly’s brow. Cool skin.

Kelly yawned. "Sleepy. And a little dizzy. Other than that, I feel fine." She yawned again. "What happened?"

"Well, you were kinda sick."

She looked up into Valerie’s eyes, mildly surprised. "Really?"

"Uh huh. But you seem to look a lot better than last night. You hungry?"

Kelly grinned drowsily. "You bet," she croaked.

Good sign, Valerie thought as she grinned back at her. "Good. My fridge is empty, so what do you say we get dressed and get you home? Your mom and dad are probably pretty worried about you."

"Okay!" she said cheerfully.

***

Karen and Oscar stood on the porch, holding hands to reassure each other. They were wondering what Valerie was doing with their only daughter, having been gone all night; they had no way of knowing what was happening there, since Valerie had no radio, and they had promised her that they would leave everything to her. But they were still worried. Doctor Bennet hadn’t been able to get to the Corey house until well after midnight because of the unfamiliarity of the night-shrouded woods; just about everyone who lived in this area stayed home after sunset, because for the most part they just couldn’t see where they were going. And, of course, there were the wolves. But eventually he had arrived, and now--with one haunch on the porch rail, his pipe clenched in his teeth and his arms folded--he waited with the Coreys to find out what had happened.

The horse cleared the edge of the woods. A dark-haired woman, dressed in a black velvet dress and jacket that were trimmed with white lace, and a young girl dressed in blue denim and brown corduroy, could be seen sitting in the saddle. "Hi, Mom! Hi, Daddy!" the girl shouted gleefully as she waved. When the horse drew closer, she jumped down with a dazzling grin, and hit the ground running.

"Hey, not too much running around, okay?" Valerie called out to the quickly retreating figure, but her words fell on joy-deafened ears. Kelly ran to her mother’s outstretched arms and jumped into them, and hugged her with surprising strength. Then she jumped and hugged Oscar.

"How ya doin’, punkin?" he asked.

"Are you kidding?" she asked, her voice a long burst of machine gun fire. "I’m great! Aunt Valerie the good witch lady cured me! Do we got anything to eat? I’m starving!"

Valerie smiled at the nickname. Still exhausted from the night before, she slid slowly from the saddle, careful not to fall. The ritual had been more of a psychic drain on her than she had expected, but the results were well worth it.

Oscar moved quickly to catch her. She looked pale and weak, and there were dark circles around her eyes. "Are you okay?" he asked, worried that she might have contracted Kelly’s virus.

"I’m fine," she replied. "I just didn’t ground myself long enough."

He looked at her with puzzled eyes. "‘Scuse me?"

She smiled at his puzzlement and hugged him. "Never mind."

Karen came forward with Kelly, and the child hugged the Witch one more time. Karen also hugged her close. "I don’t know how you did it," she said with a sob of joy and relief, "and I don’t even really care at this moment. Thank you seems so inadequate..." She kissed both of her cheeks.

"That goes for me, too," Oscar said as he also gave her a hug. "I’m sorry I ever doubted you."

"Hey, that’s okay," Valerie told them. "After all, I really was asking a lot from you."

"Listen," Oscar said. "If you ever need anything from me, no favor’s too big. You saved my little girl’s life, and I’ll always be in your debt."

Dr. Bennet looked from Kelly to Valerie, and wondered who was supposed to be sick. It was hard to imagine this girl, who was now running around and chasing the chickens--she seemed to be so full of energy that she would burst if she didn’t burn it off somehow--as being fever-ridden and semi-comatose. On the other hand, it was Valerie who looked pale and drawn. He approached her and said, "Let’s get you inside and have a look at you."

Valerie grinned at him. "I’m fine, really. But go ahead, if it’ll make you feel better; I’m in kind of a curing mood today."

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

The old, two-story house was located off-campus, and resembled something out of a Charles Addams cartoon. The disadvantage of living off-campus in this old tree-shrouded manse was the hassle of biking across town to get to class on time--and here in northern California that tended to be quite a problem during the rainy season. But the advantages far outweighed this inconvenience. Not having a dormitory room meant not having to worry about electronic surveillance by the university’s loyalists in the FLM, and it meant no surprise midnight searches for contraband by campus security forces. The university officials described "contraband" as anything that was illegal or forbidden--and quite frequently the terms were used interchangeably--but that was about as far as the definition went. As to what was forbidden, well, that changed from time to time. Without any kind of notification, of course, so no criminals would be warned. Soldiers and security officers would claim to be looking for drugs and guns, which were always mentioned in the same breath in order to keep that almost subliminal comparison in people’s minds, or explosives or other materials of this nature, but the items that usually wound up being confiscated were political pamphlets or books of a "subversive" nature. One had to have a special permit to check out certain books from university libraries, and even then these books could be read only with the understanding that they were to be derided in term papers and university publications.

The students who lived here were legitimately enrolled with the university, but they chose to live off-campus for those very reasons. It was cold and dark outside, and a few of them were lounging around in the spacious living room on the two sofas and flopped into some chairs, listening to an old Jethro Tull CD and to the crackling of the flames in the fireplace, and talking about last weekend’s football game against UCLA ("God, how we trounced ‘em!" one woman shrieked gleefully), and sipping at coffee or hot chocolate.

The discussion was interrupted by an angry young man that burst in through the front door and slammed it shut. With long hair that swept about his shoulders, he wore faded blue jeans and a matching jacket, and an old chambray work shirt. "Did you hear?" he said angrily, almost shouting. "Did you hear that bastard?"

"Hey, calm down," said Allison, a tall and slim blonde woman with a dark tan, who was smoking a joint. "What’s your problem, guy? Which bastard are you talking about this week?"

"My problem?" said Scott, the angry student. "It isn’t just my problem, man, it’s everyone’s!"

"Calm down, Scott," said Michael, who was sitting with Allison and sharing that joint. "What are you carrying on about?"

"That fucking pig Slogan, that’s what I’m carrying on about! Haven’t you heard?"

"Heard what?" Allison asked with growing apprehension. She never knew Scott to be this angry without a good reason.

Scott glanced around the room and his eyes fell on the stereo system that rested text to the small television set. "Here, you can hear it for yourself." He stopped the CD player and switched the selector to AM, and set the amber digital readout to an all news station. The voice of President Ronald M. Slogan, addressing the nation, came on. "...by the authority vested in me as the President of the United Christian States..."

"United Christian States?" three other people said as one, shocked. "When did..."

"That’s not all," Scott said grimly.

"...and I am announcing that I have just authorized the deployment of ground forces inside the border of Panama..."

"What the hell?!"

"He can’t do that!"

"What, again?" a cynical voice muttered.

"Who the hell does he think he is?"

"I do not take this action lightly. As Christian Americans, we have never invaded, nor are we now invading, a foreign land merely for our own desires and purposes..."

"At least, not without first extorting an ‘invitation’ from them," said that cynical voice.

"...but we must stop the spread of secular humanist communism into Christian nations. Remember that the religion of the communists is atheism, and secular humanism, directed by Satan himself..."

"What?" Allison cried.

"What the bloody hell?" Michael asked. He didn’t even realize he had dropped the joint.

"...since we originally built that canal anyway, and it was tricked our of our control..." Slogan was droning on.

Scott nodded solemnly. "That’s what I’m carrying on about," he said, his voice matching the now controlled rage that could be seen in his eyes.

"But he can’t do that!" Terry, another one of the students, said again. "Congress has to--"

"Congress hasn’t got shit to say about it," Scott said.

"This has been a special re-broadcast of..." the announcer was saying. Scott shut the radio off. "It’s just like when old what’s-his-name started sending troops into Cambodia back in 1970. I swear to God, it’s the whole Vietnam syndrome all over again. Remember last month, when everyone was wondering why Slogan announced the increase in the number of people to get drafted? Now you know why!"

"My God," Michael said.

"Well, at least we can’t get drafted," Terry said. "I mean, when you enroll in college you can get an exemption. Can’t you?"

"What?" Scott said with a short, barking laugh. "Where the hell have you been?"

"Hey, when you’re in college they give you a...what’s it called, a student deferment?"

"What are you, kidding?" Michael said, trying hard to stay calm. "They stopped giving those out nearly forty years ago; even before then, you had to fight like hell to get one. We can all get drafted! Unless you’re a woman. Or gay. Jesus, first it was Nicaragua, then El Salvador, then Honduras, then Costa Rica, and now this. I’ll bet Cuba’s next."

"There’s nothing to stop us from demonstrating against it," Allison said. "They can’t stop us from making a public statement against Slogan’s policies. If we can educate enough of the people..."

"Demonstrate?" Scott said sharply. "This isn’t the Sixties anymore. We’re still under martial law, and the President has done nothing to revoke it. Hell, he likes ruling by martial law. And remember what happened at the Betatron nuke plant ten years ago? And how about Kent State and Jackson State back in 1970--remember them? I got an uncle who almost got killed at Kent. Hell, if we tried to demonstrate we’d all get shot down like they were." He paused for a moment, and the room was deadly silent.

"In 1770, there was the Boston Massacre. A bunch of kids made the fatal mistake of throwing rocks and snowballs at some British soldiers, and the soldiers opened fire. Three people were killed. As a result we finally kicked the British out in a little action called the American Revolution. Two hundred years later a bunch of university students at Kent State in Ohio held a rally, a few of them threw some rocks at the National Guard and the soldiers opened fire, killing four and wounding nine others. And what happened? I’ll tell you what happened, man: nothing happened! No one ever found out who started the shooting. Oh, sure, there was plenty of finger-pointing--all in a circle--but those who really did know weren’t about to offer any information. And there were more protests, lots of shouting and all that, and they had this really big inquiry for the TV cameras. But that’s all that happened. American people just don’t give a damn anymore. They think they’re born with all these rights--they don’t understand that freedom doesn’t come free, and that it has to be demanded and fought for! They let the Government give them the illusion of contentment--not happiness, just contentment--while it stomps all over them. And the people do nothing, man. Nothing!"

"It wasn’t the Boston Massacre that finally got the Revolution started," Michael said. "Allow me to correct your history--it was a bloody tea tax."

Scott forced a thin smile. "I stand corrected," he said. "Maybe if the government made all TVs coin operated, or...or maybe if you had to have some federal bureaucrat watch you while you fucked your girl friend to make sure you weren’t doing anything illegal...maybe then things would get started. People need to be kicked in their self-destructive luxuries to get them off their asses and into the streets."

The room grew quiet, as oppressively quiet as a funeral parlor. Then Terry’s voice, sounding very lonely and afraid in the suffocating quiet, asked, "What can we do, man? My God, what are we gonna do?"

To Be Continued


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